Dr. Sun Yat-sen (孫中山), Father of Modern China, delivered a public speech at Hong Kong University in 1923. Began with a rhetorical question “Where and how did I get my revolutionary and modern ideas?” Sun’s answer was Hong Kong, the British colony where he came 30 years prior at the age of 17 and stayed for 9 years as a high school and medical student. During his time in the city, Sun was impressed by the architecture, urban order and public safety of Hong Kong, and the efficiency of the government. Whereas just 50 miles away in Heungshan (now Zhongshan), Sun’s home village in Qing China, government officials were highly corrupted and incompetent. His experience and knowledge obtained in Hong Kong had inspired Sun’s ideas of the Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命) and strengthened his will to establish a modern China.
Sun Yat-sen spent most of his time in the core area of Victoria City, now the area of Central-Sheung Wan. In 1996, the Hong Kong Government began to promote a tourist route called Dr. Sun Yat-sen Historical Trail (孫中山史跡徑) to commemorate the famous visitor. 16 spots related to Sun were identified along the 2-hour historical walk in the Central-Western District. Nine local artists were commissioned to design unique plaques that can be seen as urban artworks. These spots include the locations where Sun attended schools, places he lived, venues he met with his political partners, and sites where his organizations engaged in revolutionary activities. In 2006, the Edwardian Classical Kom Tong Hall in the Mid-Levels was converted into Sun Yat-sen Museum. Not only does the museum provides another focal point in the city to learn about Sun’s story, it also offers the perfect reason to preserve the 1914 building. Kom Tong Hall was the former mansion of businessman Ho Kom-tong (何甘棠), the younger brother of Robert Ho Tung (何東), the richest man in Hong Kong at the turning of the century. Listed as a declared monument, Kom Tong Hall (甘棠第) was one of the first buildings in Hong Kong to use reinforced concrete structure and fitted with concealed electrical wiring. The historical architecture itself is well worth a visit. The story of Sun Yat-sen remind us that Hong Kong, as a melting pot between East and West, and the old and new, has been a source of inspirations and a window to the outside world for the Chinese community in the modern era.
Linking a number of tourist attractions like Tai Kwun, PMQ and Man Mo Temple, Hollywood Road is always popular for tourists in Hong Kong. While tourists come for the historical attractions, many locals, on the other hand, come to Hollywood Road for food and drinks. South of Hollywood Road, the narrow Staunton Street (士丹頓街) was once home to wet market vendors, trading offices, family-run stores and small Buddhist convents (庵堂). In fact, Staunton Street was once nicknamed the Street of Buddhist Nuns (師姑街). After the Central – Mid Levels Escalators opened to the public in 1993 and brought an influx of pedestrians from the business district downhill, Staunton Street and the adjacent Elgin Street(伊利近街) have quietly undergone a dramatic transformation. Expatriates started to move into the area. Old shops and Buddhist convents were gradually replaced by bars, pubs, restaurants, comedy clubs, cafes, and wine shops. In 1996, Thomas Goetz, a restaurant owner from Elgin Street, came up with the acronym “SoHo” (蘇豪) for this new entertainment and dining area of Central, referring to the location “South of Hollywood Road”. From then on, the Staunton Street that I used to go as a child to get fresh grocery and pay ritualistic respect to my grandfather at a small Buddhist convent has silently disappeared. Today, SoHo would remain sleepy most of the day, and then bursts into life after sunset. The yell of market vendors and pungent incense smoke have been replaced by causal giggles and laughter, and the smell of beer.
Further away from the Central – Mid Levels Escalators and less than 150m northwest of the buzzing SoHo, Gough Street (歌賦街), Kau U Fong (九如坊) and Aberdeen Street (鴨巴甸街) offer a much more laid-back and tranquil ambience. Once home to family run shops and small printing presses, these sleepy back streets have become a hipper cousin of the nearby SoHo. Known as NoHo for “North of Hollywood Road”, this area is particular attractive to locals who come for the foodie scene: Chinese cuisine, dai pai dong dishes, beef brisket noodles, Japanese ramen, sushi, Western fine dining, unadon, Vietnamese pho, hand-drip cafes, bubble tea, chocolate, etc. Despite its abundance of dining options, the shops here remain small and peaceful. Compared to its noisier neighbour, NoHo is much more low key, as if deliberately staying away from the public limelight. Here visitors would enjoy a sense of discovery and intimacy that is hard to find anywhere else in Central.
Between Sheung Wan and Central lies a tranquil stepped alleyway known as Shing Wong Street (城皇街). In Chinese tradition, “Shing Wong” is the guardian deity of city wall, or in a broader sense, the patron saint of the neighbourhood. Shing Wong Street reminds us that there was once a Shing Wong Temple (城皇廟) stood at the site bounded by Shing Wong Street (城皇街), Staunton Street (士丹頓街), Aberdeen Street (鴨巴甸街), and Hollywood Road (荷李活道), a relatively large plot of land in the old Victoria City. Probably built in 1843 or earlier, some consider the former Shing Wong Temple the oldest temple in colonial Hong Kong. Its importance was soon overtaken by Man Mo Temple (文武廟) further down Hollywood Road. In 1870’s, Shing Wong Temple was temporarily converted into a mental health asylum. And then in the 1880’s the government bought the temple and redeveloped it into the new campus of Central School (中央書院), the city’s first upper primary and secondary school to provide modern education. The school was later renamed as Victoria College (維多利亞書院) in 1889 and later the Queen’s College (皇仁書院). Merchant tycoon Sir Robert Ho Tung, and Sun Yatsen, the Father of Modern China were some of the well known graduates from the college’s early years. The Neo-Classical college building was one of the most expensive construction projects in 19th century Hong Kong.
For half a century the splendid Queen’s College building stood proudly in Upper Sheung Wan, until 1941 when the school was forced to close down due to WWII. The building suffered devastating destruction during the war and became nothing more than ruins and rubble when the city was liberated from Japanese occupation. In 1948, the ruins were cleared to make way for a new era. In 1951, a functionalist building was erected for a completely different purpose: residential compound for the police force. Sitting on four levels of platforms, the Police Married Quarters offered about 170 dwelling units. The functionalist compound served its intended purpose for another half a century, until the last residents moved out in 2000. Subsequently the government rezoned the site for private residential development. The heritage site was at risk to be lost forever.
“Save the Trees” was the first slogan local resident Katty Law put up in 2005 to protest against the felling of the Hollywood Road “stone wall trees” of the Police Married Quarters. Among a few other residents from the local neighborhood, Law found a NGO known as Central and Western Concern Group (中西區關注組). The neighborhood group successfully persuaded the government to consider removing the site from residential redevelopment and engaging in archaeological examination of the site. The government agreed to study the site. This eventually led to discovering the historical foundation of the former Queen’s College. In 2009, the government finally announced preserving the former Police Married Quarters and revitalizing it into a hub for art and design that is known as PMQ today. In 2014, the PMQ reincarnated one more time. A glass canopy was constructed over the central court, where public events would now be held. The former residential units were retrofitted into studio spaces for selective tenants including designers, artists, galleries, fashion designers, jewellery designers, lifestyle shops, vintage stores, cultural institutions, cafes, bakeries, and restaurants. A new hub for tourists and art lovers has been reborn upon the legacies of a temple, school and police residence.
While remote Fan Lau (分流) is the westernmost village in Hong Kong, Po Toi Island (蒲台島) is its counterpart at the southernmost point of the territory. From 2000 inhabitants in the 1950’s down to about 10 today, like many rural communities in the city, Po Toi Island has gone through a rapid decline in population in the modern era. The remote island with a population of merely 10 would become lively during weekends when a few boat loads of visitors arrive at the dock. Beautiful granite formations, ancient stone carving, a lone lighthouse, a few simple houses, several fishing boats and nets, and racks of drying seafood and seaweeds, Po Toi Island is a peaceful getaway less than an hour ferry from either Aberdeen (香港仔) or Stanley (赤柱). A day before Chinese New Year in a fine Sunday morning, we decided to take the 8:15 ferry, the only scheduled departure of the day, from Aberdeen to Po Toi.
There are either one to two ferries on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from Aberdeen going to Po Toi Island. On Sunday, there are more Po Toi bound ferries departing from Stanley. For us, we opted for Aberdeen because of the unique scenery of its famous typhoon shelter, the home of Aberdeen Floating Village (香港仔水上人家). There were once over 6000 inhabitants living on the boats in Aberdeen, one of the most significant port in Hong Kong since the 19th century.
Today there are still a number of boat villagers staying, and so as their fleet of fishing boats, seafood stalls, floating restaurants, and the seafood wholesale business, etc. At 7:30am on a Chinese New Year’s Eve, local residents were busy shopping for seafood from the fishermen at Aberdeen Waterfront Promenade. On such an important day of the year, their seafood would be sold out in less than an hour.
Decorations for the Chinese New Year could be seen at piers and boats along the promenade.
Under the soft morning sun, colourful boats of all sizes crisscrossed the waterways among the boats parked between Aberdeen and Ap Lei Chau Island. The Ap Lei Chau Island sheltered Aberdeen from the wind and waves of the open sea, making Aberdeen Channel one of the best typhoon shelter in Hong Kong.
Despite most fishermen have moved onto apartments in Aberdeen and Ap Lei Chau, the scenery of Aberdeen is still dominated the channel and typhoon shelter.
The open waterway in the middle of Aberdeen Channel was like a water highway to us.
Our ferry also passed by one of the famous floating seafood restaurants in Aberdeen.
And we also passed by the Ocean Park, the iconic ocean-themed amusement park and aquarium.
From a distance, we also recognized the beautiful Repulse Bay.
Our ferry finally docked at Po Toi’s pier at Tai Wan (大灣). There weren’t that many visitors around. We only shared the island with a handful of tourists and the remaining Po Toi inhabitants.
Po Toi remains as a remote, sleepy and simple fishing village. From the pier, we walked for a few minutes to reach the main beach in the middle of Tai Wan (大灣). There was a seafood restaurant called Ming Kee, probably the only seafood restaurant on the island.
Dried seafood (fish, squid, and even octopus) were common sights.
There were racks on the main beach Tai Wan (大灣) where villagers dried their fishing nets and other fishing equipment.
Some houses on Po Toi were colourfully painted, presenting a great match to the bright blue sky.
On the other end of Tai Wan (大灣) stood an old Tin Hau Temple, dedicated to the sea goddess of Tin Hau for protecting the fishermen at the sea.
Inside the temple, we saw a number of decorations related to the fishing culture of Po Toi, such as the wooden model of a dragon boat.
Adjacent to the Tin Hau Temple, we followed the metal chain up the granite hill to start our day hike.
On two thirds the way up we could clearly see the magnificent scenery of Tai Wan (大灣) and the public pier below.
Looking south we saw Lighthouse no. 126 and the southern tip of the island.
We leisurely walked down the hill in the direction of the lighthouse.
On our way we passed by some graves facing the sea, quite a scenic resting place for the departed.
Atop another hill we encountered a well known attraction on Po Toi. Known as the Monk Rock, this rock formation resembled a Buddhist monk when viewed from afar.
A few tents were set up near Lighthouse No. 126. Po Toi is a popular spot for camping. Far from the city’s light pollution, those who brave for the night here get a chance to admire and photographing the starry night sky.
We finally reached the No. 126 Lighthouse, a simple white washed structure perched on top of granite rocks, overlooking the southern shore and the vast South China Sea.
Reaching the No. 126 Lighthouse at the southernmost point of Hong Kong overlooking the boundless water in a day of very fine weather was emotional and satisfying.
We then moved on to the real southern tip of the island. The South China Sea looked surprisingly busy with cargo ships.
Heading back towards the pier, we reached another attraction of Po Toi, the interesting rock formation with large vertical stone strips known as the Buddhist Palm.
More graves appeared as we walked closer to the village. Like grey boulders, the tombstones looked quite blended in with the overall natural setting.
There are a number of ancient stone carvings in Hong Kong and its outlying islands. There is a mysterious one on Po Toi, simply known as Po Toi Island Stone Carvings (蒲台島石刻).
Back to the village, we decided to sit down at Ming Kee (明記海鮮酒家), the only seafood restaurant on the island.
We just ordered their set lunch with shrimps, squid, small abalone, sweet and sour pork and stir fry vegetables.
After lunch, we wandered along the beach at Tai Wan (大灣).
Po Toi is the most famous spot in Hong Kong for seaweed and kelp. We could clearly see the seaweed above the water.
There were drying kelp and seaweed allover the tiny village. We couldn’t resist but bought a few packs.
A dog lying beside the rack as if guarding the drying kelp.
Before leaving the island, we sat down at one of the simple snack shops and ordered the kelp and green bean soup (海帶綠豆沙), a sweet delight full of aroma of seaweed and herbs that every visitor should try a bowl.